Three decades since first visiting the Queen Mary, Bernard O’Riordan returns to find it’s been anything but plain sailing for the supposedly haunted cruise liner.
As you drive through the industrial outskirts of Long Beach, a port 32km south of Hollywood, there’s a very distinctive feature on the skyline that tells you you’ve arrived at the RMS Queen Mary: her signature smoke stacks.
You can see the seven storey-high smoke funnels of the iconic 1930s ocean liner (pictured above) from many kilometres away, guiding you to where she’s berthed at Long Beach.
The first glimpse of her trademark stacks painted in their Cunard Red, which really looks more like burnt orange, brings back memories of the first time I stepped on board, almost 30 years earlier.
It was 1991, and the Walt Disney Company, which operated the Queen Mary on behalf of the City of Long Beach, had just sunk around $2 million into restoring her to her former glory.
I was lucky to be part of a small group of travel writers from Australia and New Zealand invited to celebrate Disneyland’s 35th anniversary.
A side visit to the Disney-run Queen Mary and the adjoining Spruce Goose, the gigantic airplane built by out of wood by Howard Hughes, was all part of the experience.
Stepping on board the 77,000 tonne ocean liner, which is now a permanent floating hotel, it was impossible to miss the grand reminders of the ship’s glory days, when she carried the world’s rich and famous across the Atlantic.
The original portholes, art deco design and polished wood panelling were still in place, artfully preserved to give visitors a glimpse at the heyday of trans-Atlantic cruise travel, when it took four days to travel from Southampton to New York.
The First Class Grand Salon, where we enjoyed lunch on that day in April 1991, was stunning with its elaborate murals, paintings, sculptures and wood carvings.
For a young journalist barely in his 20s, dining under this art deco canopy and experiencing this faded old-world glamour was a lot to take in.
Disney marketers also capitalised on the fact that the Queen Mary was considered to be one of the most haunted sites in the US, with 49 deaths reported aboard the ship in its heyday.
Perhaps the most infamous death was that of the crushed crewman of engine room No. 113, who died in a doorway during a test for water-tightness in July 1966.
This was the inspiration for the Ghosts & Legends tour that has existed since the early 1990s, helping to keep the vessel afloat.
But for Disney, these type of marketing efforts were just the tip of the commercial iceberg (no pun intended).
It had big plans for the Queen Mary and the adjoining dock area, with a water-themed amusement park called Disney Sea, a marina, a retail and entertainment area and hotel accommodations all on the drawing board. It was also going to be a hub for Disney Cruise Lines.
Of course, history tells us that Disney Sea and Port Disney never eventuated.
Just 18 months after wooing the visiting media, Disney cancelled its lease on the money-losing Queen Mary, reportedly fed up with City Hall’s dithering.
Some suggest Disney might have played the City of Long Beach off against Anaheim to see who would come up with the best deal. In the end Anaheim won, with Disney expanding its theme park and hotel interests there.
The new Disney California Adventure opened in February 2001.
Wandering the piers at Long Beach today, you wonder what might have been. It looks as though little has changed since I last visited, although the Spruce Goose has long since gone, shipped off to an Oregon air museum.
The giant white dome that once housed the famed aircraft has expanded and is now home to Carnival Cruise Line.
And while the 82-year-old Queen Mary survives, it’s alarming to learn that she has fallen into such shocking disrepair that the repair bill alone threatens to sink her.
A marine survey of the ship, requested by its previous operator New York-based Garrison Investment Group, suggested it was in danger of sinking, with naval architects and marine engineers warning ominously that she was “approaching the point of no return.”
It strikes me that while successive operators and city officials were busy marketing the wonders of this beloved Long Beach fixture to the outside world, the vessel itself was crumbling at the core.
Aside from a few leaks, some peeling paint and the fact that the Grand Salon is now closed to the public (there were concerns some interior pillars might collapse), most visitors to the Queen Mary would not even realise she urgently needs close to $289 million worth of repairs.
Some of this urgent work has already started. In recent months, the ship has had extensive structural repairs to the M and A decks, allowing the Ghosts & Legends attraction to reopen. It was forced to close in 2016.
The entire ship has been given a fresh coat of paint for the first time in decades, with the smoke stacks and hull restored to their original colours.
But other repairs have been shelved or delayed due to cost blowouts. Less than a third of the urgent repairs have been completed, and ominously no further financing is available from the City until 2027.
Queen Mary Island
In a real déjà vu moment, Urban Commons, a Los Angeles real estate firm that holds the lease on the Queen Mary until 2082, has a plan to revive the Queen Mary’s fortunes.
But it hinges on developing the land surrounding the ship – reminiscent of the vision Disney had for the site 30 years ago.
The ambitious Queen Mary Island project, if it gets off the ground, would help pay for future restoration work and would include an entertainment precinct with stores, restaurants and sports venues, with the Queen Mary as its core attraction.
Given more recent plans for a science fiction museum and time-share condominiums on the site never saw the light of day, you can understand why many locals think this is just another case of wishful thinking.
But this time things might be different. They have to be. The Queen Mary’s survival, for one, depends on it.
Having already survived multiple operators, lease disputes, financial crises, failed acquisitions, bankruptcies and other dilemmas, perhaps luck is on her side.
Getting to the Queen Mary From Hollywood, the easiest way to get to Long Beach is by taking the above ground light rail. First, take the Red Line subway from Hollywood to 7th/Metro in Downtown Los Angeles. Transfer to the Blue Line light rail that will take you to Long Beach. It takes just over an hour one way. At Long Beach Transit Mall station, walk around the corner to Ocean Boulevard for a free shuttle to the Queen Mary. The trip takes about 10 minutes, but it's just as easy to walk.